JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Sergio Perez won the first pole of his career Saturday at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, where Formula One has been under heavy scrutiny for continuing its race weekend following an attack on a nearby oil depot.
Perez of Red Bull surged to the top of the chart for the first time in 215 career F1 races with a late push to edge Ferrari teammates Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr.
Series champion Max Verstappen, Perez’s Red Bull teammate, was fourth.
“It took me a couple of races,” Perez, who has been racing in F1 since 2011 and with Red Bull since last season, told Sky Sports after the pole. “But what a lap, man. It was unbelievable. I can do 1,000 laps, and I don’t think I can beat that one. It was unbelievable.”
SERGIO PEREZ IS ON POLE FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME!!!!
What a sensational lap by the @redbullracing driver 💪
Well done @SChecoPerez! 🥳#SaudiArabianGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/kcQ51ErSJs
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 26, 2022
Hamilton qualified 16th and was eliminated by Lance Stroll from advancing to the second round in the closing seconds of the opening session. He later moved up to 15th after Mick Schumacher crashed and was ruled out of Sunday’s race.
Hamilton’s new Mercedes teammate, George Russell, posted the fourth-quickest time in the first round and later qualified sixth.
Hamilton told reporters he had struggled with the balance of his No. 44 car. The seven-time series champion, winner of a record 103 pole positions, had his worst qualifying session since 2017.
Hamilton, who finished third at last week’s season opener in Bahrain, said he wasn’t distracted after he and other drivers met for several hours into early Saturday morning with track and series officials.
🏁 QUALIFYING CLASSIFICATION 🏁
A maiden pole position for Checo! 👏#SaudiArabianGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/XhWtsv7cxB
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 26, 2022
They took to the track as scheduled Saturday after receiving “detailed assurances” of their safety a day after an attack on the kingdom by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
But most of Saturday was focused on F1’s decision to continue at a circuit about 11 kilometers (7 miles) from the bombed, smoke-covered depot. The attack Friday happened during F1’s first practice session of the weekend and smoke could be seen billowing in the background of the circuit.
Drivers met multiple times Friday for about four hours before deciding early Saturday morning to compete.
Hamilton, usually outspoken on human rights and other issues, said little about the collective decision to race. The seven-time champion only said he was eager to get home.
“Together as a group we all discussed and made a decision as a sport,” Hamilton said. “I don’t feel a particular way about it, I’m looking forward to getting out.”
Sainz said racing was the right decision but that F1’s controversial participation in Saudi Arabia can’t be ignored once the series globe-trots away to Australia and then Europe.
“There will need to be discussions after this race,” the Spanish driver said. “Because what has happened in the last 24 hours is definitely a point of discussion.”
Team principals were adamant Saturday it is safe to race in Saudi Arabia despite the attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali addressed the decision to compete.
“We are not blind,” he said in comments distributed by a pool report. “You cannot pretend to change a culture that is more than (a) millennium in the blink of an eye. Of course there are tensions inside and things that have to be improved.
“We don’t want to be political on that but I do believe we are playing a prominent role in the modernization of this country.”
Domenicali also addressed the difference between remaining in Saudi Arabia against F1’s decision to drop its race from Russia from this year’s schedule after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto said the decision to continue was correct, but team principals also said no driver or team member would have been stopped from leaving.
The Houthis acknowledged the attacks Friday evening and Saudi Arabia state TV called it a “hostile operation.”
Hamilton and other drivers previously expressed their concerns about racing in the region, mainly concerning Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
The attack targeted the North Jeddah Bulk Plant, the same fuel depot the Houthis attacked five days earlier. The plant is just southeast of the city’s international airport.
The plant stores diesel, gasoline and jet fuel for use in the kingdom’s second-largest city. It accounts for over a quarter of all of Saudi Arabia’s supplies.
A Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen unleashed a barrage of airstrikes on Yemen’s capital and a strategic Red Sea city, officials said on Saturday. The overnight airstrikes on Sanaa and Hodeida – both held by the Houthis – responded to the attack in Jeddah.
The circuit is hosting an F1 race for the second time, after the inaugural race last December, and pole-winner Perez called it “definitely the most dangerous place in the calendar. That’s no secret about it.”